- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 28, 2016

FORT LEE, VA. | It was billed as President Obama’s farewell to the troops, but the president came under some tough questioning from soldiers Wednesday about his policies on women in the military, problems in veterans’ health care and his reluctance to utter the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism.”

Mr. Obama held an invitation-only town hall meeting at Fort Lee, Virginia, an Army base where he reviewed his accomplishments in eight years as commander in chief. While the event was hardly hostile, neither was it a rosy walk in the park.

The mother of a fallen soldier asked the president bluntly, “Why do you still refuse to use the term ‘radical Islamic terrorist’?” The president has been criticized often, mainly by Republicans, for avoiding the term and failing to acknowledge the root causes of terrorism.

Mr. Obama said he believes “this is an issue that has been sort of manufactured.”

“There is no doubt that I’ve said repeatedly where we’ve seen terrorist organizations like al Qaeda or ISIL, they have perverted and distorted and tried to claim the mantle of Islam for basically barbarism and death,” the president said, using an acronym for the Islamic State. “What I have been careful about … is to make sure we do not lump these murderers into the billion Muslims that exist around the world, including in this country, who are peaceful, who are responsible.”

He added, “I don’t want to validate what they [terrorists] do. Call these folks what they are, which is killers and terrorists.”

Another audience member, Marine Capt. Lauren Serrano, questioned Mr. Obama’s advocacy of placing women in combat roles. She cited a report that a mixed-gender unit took a significantly longer amount of time to evacuate its personnel from a war hot spot, and noted that her husband is also a Marine.

“That added time could mean the difference between my husband living and dying,” she said.

Mr. Obama told her that “I don’t think any studies are going to be disregarded,” but he defended placing women in the same military jobs as men.

“As a consequence of women serving in our military, we’ve gained a lot of talent,” he said. “I want to make sure that our starting assumption is if you can do the job, you should be able to get the job.”

One soldier asked the president his views on NFL players such as Colin Kaepernick protesting during the national anthem at games. Mr. Obama said “honoring our flag and our anthem is part of what binds us together as a nation.”

But he said “it’s also their right” as protesters angry about police treatment of minorities to voice their views.

“It’s also important for us to recognize that sometimes, out of these controversies, we start to get into a conversation,” he said. “I want everybody to listen to each other.”

Asked if he would allow his daughters to join the military, Mr. Obama replied, “I’d say go for it.”

“I cannot tell you how incredibly proud I am of our military as an institution,” he said. “If Malia and Sasha decided that was an avenue they wanted to take, I’d be proud of them.”

The president held the event in an important swing state less than six weeks before Election Day, but White House spokesman Josh Earnest said it’s not a political trip.

“The president does not intend to do any politicking on a military base,” Mr. Earnest said. “I don’t think the president should avoid traveling to a military base just because it’s an election year; if anything, it’s in the midst of an election year. We should have all that much more appreciation for the service and sacrifice that’s made by our men and women in uniform and their families.”

Mr. Obama has spent most of his presidency trying to disengage U.S. military deployments from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 2,000 soldiers have been killed in those theaters during his presidency, while he has drawn down more than 200,000 troops from those countries.

The trip comes as the administration announced that Mr. Obama is deploying about 600 more U.S. troops to Iraq to prepare for an offensive to retake the city of Mosul from Islamic State extremists.

Before leaving Fort Lee, Mr. Obama stopped to visit with about 550 soldiers at a recreation center.

“Serving is not always the most lucrative, but you dedicated yourself to something bigger than yourself,” Mr. Obama told then. “I want to thank you for your devotion. Our nation has asked a lot of this generation. You’ve done your duty again and again. You’ve earned your place among the greatest of generations.”

He said U.S. troops show the country what unity is all about.

“Sometimes, especially during election season, the country seems divided,” he said. “You’re unified in your mission. You do your job. You look out for each other. You remind us we’re one team, we’re one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. That’s what you stand for.”

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